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The Borrowers Aloft, Page 2

Mary Norton

  But none of this bothered Mr. Pott. He was not particularly anxious for visitors: they took up his time and disturbed his work. If he encouraged sight-seers at all, it was just out of loyalty to his beloved Railway Benevolent.

  He took no precautions for their comfort, however. It was Mrs. Read of the Crown and Anchor who saw to that side of things and who benefitted accordingly. The whole of Mr. Pott's railway could be seen from the back doorstep, which led on to his garden, and sight-seers had to pass through his house. They were welcome, of course, as they went through the kitchen to a glass of cool water from the tap.

  When Mr. Pott built his church, it was an exact copy of the Norman church at Fordham, with added steeple, gravestones, and all. He collected stone for over a year before he started to build. The stone breakers helped him, as they chipped beside the highway. So did Mr. Flood, the mason. By now Mr. Pott had several helpers in the village: besides Henry the blacksmith, he had Miss Men-zies of High Beech. Miss Menzies was very useful to Mr. Pott. She designed Christmas cards for a living, wrote children's books, and her hobbies were wood carving, hand weaving, and barbola * work. She also believed in fairies.

  When Mr. Platter heard of the church—it took some time, because, until it was finished, during visiting hours Mr. Pott swathed it in sacking—Mr. Platter put up a larger one with a much higher steeple, based on Salisbury Cathedral. At a touch the windows lit up, and with the aid of a phonograph he laid on music inside. Takings had fallen off again slightly at Ballyhoggin; now they leaped up.

  All the same, Mr. Pott was a great worry to Mr. Platter—you never quite knew what he might be up to in his gentle, plodding way. When Mr. Pott built two cob cottages and thatched them, Mr. Platter's takings fell off for weeks. Mr. Platter was forced to screen off part of his island and build, at lightning speed, a row of semidetached villas and a public house. The same thing happened when Mr. Pott built his village shop and filled the window with miniature merchandise in painted barbola work—a gift from Miss Menzies of High Beech. Immediately, of course, Mr. Platter built a row of shops and a hairdresser's establishment with a striped pole.

  After a while, Mr. Platter found a way of spying on Mr. Pott.

  Chapter Three

  He mended up the flat-bottomed boat, which, for lack of use, had again become waterlogged.

  Between the two villages, the weed-clogged river and its twisting, deep-cleft tributaries formed an irritating network, only to be detoured by roads to distant bridges or by clambering and wading on foot. But if, thought Mr. Platter, you could force a boat through the rushes, you had a short cut and could spy on Mr. Pott's house through the willows by his stream.

  And this he did—after business hours on summer evenings. He did not like these expeditions but felt them to be his duty. Plagued by gnats, stung by horseflies, scratched by brambles, when he arrived back to report to Mrs. Platter, he was always in a very bad temper. Sometimes he got stuck in the mud, and sometimes, when the river was low, he had to clamber out into slime and frogs' spawn to lift the boat over hidden obstructions such as drowned logs or barbed wire. But he found a

  place, a little past the poplars, where, standing on the stump of a willow, he could see the whole layout of Mr. Pott's model village.

  "You shouldn't do it, love," Mrs. Platter would say when—panting, puce, and perspiring—he sank on a bench in the garden. "Not at your age and with your blood pressure." But she had to agree as she dabbed his gnat bites with ammonia or his wasp stings with dolly-blue, that taking it by and large his information was priceless. It was only due to Mr. Platter's courage and endurance that they found out about the model stationmaster and about Mr. Pott's two porters and the vicar in his cassock who stood at Mr. Pott's church door. Each of these tiny figures had been modeled by Miss Menzies and dressed by her in suitable clothes, which she oiled to withstand the rain.

  This discovery had shaken Mr. Platter. It was just before the opening of the season. "Lifelike," he kept saying, "that's how you'd describe them. Madame Tussaud's waxworks isn't in it. Why anyone of 'em might speak to you, if you see what I mean. It's enough to ruin you," he concluded, "and would have if I hadn't seen 'em in time."

  However, he had seen them in time; and soon both the model villages were inhabited. But Mr. Platter's figures seemed far less real than Mr. Pott's. They were hurriedly modeled, ready dressed in plaster of Paris and brightly varnished over. To make up for this, they were far more varied, and there were many more of them—postmen, milkmen, soldiers, sailors, and the lately invented boy scouts. On the steps of his church, he put a bishop, surrounded by choirboys. Each of the choirboys looked like the others, each had a hymn book and a white-plaster cassock; all had wide open mouths.

  "Now they are what I would call lifelike..." Mrs. Platter used to say proudly. And the organ would boom in the church.

  Then came the awful evening, long to be remembered, when Mr. Platter returning from a boat trip, almost stumbled as he climbed back onto the lawn. Mrs. Platter, at one of the tables, her large white cat on her lap, was peacefully counting out the takings; the littered garden was bathed in evening sunlight, and the sleepy birds sang in the trees.

  "Whatever's the matter?" exclaimed Mrs. Platter when she saw Mr. Platter's face.

  He sank down heavily in the green chair opposite, shaking the table and dislodging a pile of half crowns. The cat, alarmed and filled with foreboding, streaked off toward the shrubbery. Mr. Platter stared dully at the half crowns as they rolled away across the greensward, but he did not stoop to pick them up. Neither did Mrs. Platter; she was staring at Mr. Platter's complexion: it looked most peculiar—a kind of greenish heliotrope, very delicate in shade.

  "Whatever's the matter? Go on, tell me! What's he been and done now?"

  Mr. Platter looked back at her without any expression. "We're done for," he said.

  "Nonsense. What he can do, we can do. And it's always been like that. Remember the smoke. Now come on, tell me!"

  "Smoke," exclaimed Mr. Platter bitterly. "That was nothing—a bit of charred string! We soon got the hang of the smoke. No, this is different; this is the end. We're finished," he added wearily.

  "Why do you say that?"

  Mr. Platter got up from his chair, and mechanically, as if he did not know what he was doing, he picked up the fallen half crowns. He piled them up neatly and pushed the pile toward her. "Got to look after the money now," he said in the same dull, expressionless voice, and he slumped again in his chair.

  "Now, Sidney," said Mrs. Platter, "this isn't like you—you've got to show fight."

  "No good fighting," said Mr. Platter, "where the odds is impossible. What he's done now is plain straightforward impossible."

  His eyes strayed to the island where, touched with golden light among the long evening shadows, the static plaster figures glowed dully, frozen in their attitudes—some seeming to run, some seeming to walk, some about to knock on doors, and others simply sitting. Several windows of the model village glowed with molten sunlight as if they were afire. The birds hopped about amongst the houses, seeking for crumbs dropped by the visitors. Except for the birds, nothing moved ... stillness and deadness...

  Mr. Platter blinked. "And I'd set my heart on a cricket pitch," he said huskily, "bowler and batsmen and all."

  "Well, we still can have," said Mrs. Platter.

  He looked at her pityingly. "Not if they don't play cricket—don't you understand? I'm telling you—what he's done now is plain, straightforward impossible."

  "What has he done then?" asked Mrs. Platter in a frightened voice, infected at last by the cat's foreboding.

  Mr. Platter looked back at her with haggard eyes. "He's got a lot of live ones," he said slowly.

  Chapter Four

  But Miss Menzies, who believed in fairies, had seen them first, and in her girlish, excited, breathless way she had run to Mr. Pott.

  Mr. Pott, busy with an inn sign for his miniature Crown and Anchor, had said "Yes" and "No" and "Really."
Sometimes hearing her voice rise to fever pitch, he would exclaim "Get away" or "You don't mean it." The former expression had rather worried Miss Menzies at first. In a puzzled way her voice would falter and her blue eyes fill with tears. But soon she learned to value this request as the ultimate expression of Mr. Pott's surprise: when Mr. Pott said "Get away," she took it as a compliment and would hug her knees and laugh.

  "But it's true!" she would protest, shaking her head. "They're alive! They're as much alive ... as you and I are, and they've moved into Vine Cottage.... Why, you can sec for yourself, if you'd only look, where they've even worn a path to the door!"

  And Mr. Pott, pincers in hand and inn sign dangling, would glance down the slope toward his model of Vine Cottage. He would stare at the model for just long enough to please her, and then, wondering what she was talking about, he would grunt a little and return to his work. "Well, I never did," he would say.

  Mr. Pott, once she "got started," as he put it, never dreamed of listening to Miss Menzies. Though nodding and smiling, he would make his mind a blank. It was a trick he had learned with his late wife who was also known as a "talker." And Miss Menzies spoke in such a high, strange, fanciful voice—using the oddest words and most flyaway expressions; sometimes, to his dismay, she would even recite poetry. He did not dislike her, far from it; he liked to have her about, because in her strange, leggy, loping way she always seemed girlishly happy, and her prattle, like canary song, kept him cheerful. And many a debt he owed to those restless fingers—concocting this and fashioning that: not only could they draw, paint, sew, model, and wood-carve, but they could slide into places where Mr. Pott's own fingers, stiffer and stubbier, got stuck or could not reach. Quick as a flash, she was; gay as a lark and steady as a rock. "...none of us perfect," he'd tell himself; "you got to have something..." and with her it was "talking."

  He knew she was not young, but when she sat beside him on the rough grass, clasping her thin wrists about her bent knees, swaying back and forth, her closed eyes raised to the sun and chattering nineteen to the dozen, she seemed to Mr. Pott like some kind of overgrown schoolgirl. And sweet eyes she had, too, when they were open—that he would say—for such a long, bony face: shy eyes, which slid away when you looked too long at them—more like violets, he'd say her eyes were, than forget-me-nots. They were shining now and so were the knuckles of her long fingers clasped too tightly about her knees; even her mouse-gray silky hair had a sudden luster.

  "The great secret, you see, is never to show that you've seen them. Stillness, stillness, that's the thing—and looking obliquely and never directly. Like with bird watching—"

  "—bird watching," agreed Mr. Pott, as Miss Menzies seemed to pause. Sometimes, to show his sympathy and disguise his lack of attention, Mr. Pott would repeat the last word of Miss Menzies' last sentence, or sometimes anticipate Miss Menzies' last syllable. If Miss Menzies said, "King and Coun—" Mr. Pott would chip in, in an understanding voice, with "—tree." Sometimes, being far away in mind, Mr. Pott would make a mistake, and Miss Men-zies, referring to "garden produce" would find herself presented with "—roller" instead, and there would be bewilderment all around.

  "I can't really, you know, make out quite what they are. I mean, from the size and that, you'd say they were fairies. Now, wouldn't you?" she challenged him.

  "That's right," said Mr. Pott, testing the swing of his inn sign with a stubby finger and wondering where he had left the oil.

  "But you'd be wrong, you know. This little man I saw with this sack thing on his back—he was panting. Quite out of breath, he was. Now, fairies don't pant." As Mr. Pott was silent, Miss Menzies added sharply, "Or do they?"

  "Do they what?" asked Mr. Pott, watching the swing of his inn sign and wishing it did not squeak.

  "Pant!" said Miss Menzies, and waited.

  Mr. Pott looked troubled. What could she be talking about? "Pant?" he repeated. Mentally, he put the word into the plural and, with a glance at her face, took it out again. "1 wouldn't like to say," he conceded cagily.

  "Nor would I," agreed Miss Menzies. gaily, much to his relief. "I mean—by and large—we know so little about fairies..."

  "That's right," said Mr. Pott. He felt safe again.

  "...what their habits are. I mean, whether or not they get tired or old like we do and go to bed, cook, and do the housework. Or what they do about food. There's so little data. We don't even know what they—"

  "—eat," said Mr. Pott.

  "—are," corrected Miss Menzies. "What they are made of ... surely not flesh and blood?"

  "Surely not," agreed Mr. Pott. Then he suddenly looked startled. A strange word echoed in his mind: had she said "blood"? He laid down his inn sign and turned to look at her. "What was you saying?" he asked.

  Miss Menzies was away again. "I was saying this lot couldn't be fairies—not on second thoughts and sober reflection. Why, this little fellow had a tear in his trousers, and there he was—panting and puffing and toiling up the hill. There's another one in skirts—or maybe two in skirts. I can't make out how many there are—whether it's just one that keeps changing or what it is. There was a little hand cleaning a window—rubbing and rubbing from the inside. But you couldn't see what it belonged to. White as a bluebell stalk, it looked, when you pull it out of the earth. And about that thickness. Waving and swaying. And then I found my glasses, and I saw it had an elbow. I could hardly believe my eyes. There it was, a cloth in its hand and going into the corners. And yet, in a way, it seemed natural."

  "In a way," agreed Mr. Pott. But he was looking rather lost.

  Chapter Five

  Then began for Miss Menzies what afterward seemed almost the happiest time of her life. She had always been a great watcher: she would watch ants in the grass, mice in the corn, spinnings of webs and buildings of nests. And she could keep very quiet, because watching a spider plummet from a leaf, she would almost become a spider herself, and having studied the making of web after web, she could have spun one herself to almost any shape, however awkward. Miss Menzies, in fact, had become quite critical of web making.

  "Oh, you silly thing..." she would breathe to the spider as it swayed in the air "... not that leaf—it's going to fall. Try the thorn..."

  Now sitting on the slope, her hands about her knees, she would watch the little people, screened—as she thought—by a tall clump of thistle. And everything she saw she described to Mr. Pott.

  "There are three of them," she told him some days later. "A mother, a father, and a thin little girl. Difficult to tell their ages. Sometimes, I think there's a fourth ... something or someone who comes and goes. A shadowy sort of creature. But that, of course"—she sighed happily—"might just be my—"

  "—fancy," said Mr. Pott.

  "—imagination," corrected Miss Menzies. "It's strange, you know, that you haven't seen them!"

  Mr. Pott, busy brick-building, did not answer. He had decided the subject was human; village gossip of some kind, referring not to his Vine Cottage, but to the original one in Fordham.

  "They've done wonders to the house," Miss Menzies went on. "The front door was stuck, you know. Warped, I suppose, with the rain. But he was working on it yesterday with a thing like a razor blade. And there's another thing they've done. They've taken those curtains I made for your Crown and Anchor and put them up in Vine Cottage. So now you can't see inside. Not that I'd dare to look. You couldn't go that close, you see. And the High Street's so narrow. But isn't it exciting?"

  Mr. Pott grunted. Stirring his brick dust and sizing, he frowned to himself and breathed rather heavily. Gossip about neighbors—he had never held with it. Nor, until now, had Miss Menzies. A talker, yes, but a lady born and bred. This wasn't like her, he thought unhappily ... peeping in windows ... no, it wasn't like her at all. She was on now about the stationmaster's coat.

  "...she took it, you see. That's where it went. She took it for him, gold buttons and all, and he wears it in the evening, after sundown when the air gets chilly.
I would not be at all surprised if, one day, she snapped up the vicar's cassock. It's so like a dress, you see, and would fit her perfectly. Except, of course, that might seem too obvious. They're very clever, you know. One would be bound to notice a vicar bereft of his cassock—there on the church steps for all to see. But to see the stationmaster, you have to look right into the station. And you can't do that now. He could be without his coat for weeks and none of us any the wiser."

  Mr. Pott stopped stirring to glare at Miss Menzies. She looked back in alarm at his round, angry eyes. "But what is the matter?" she asked him uneasily, after a moment.

  Mr. Pott drew a deep breath. "If you don't know," he said, "then I won't tell you!"

  This did not seem very logical. Miss Menzies smiled forgivingly and laid a hand on his arm. "But there's nothing to be frightened of," she assured him. "They're quite all right."

  He shook his arm free and went on stirring, breathing hard and clattering with his trowel. "There's plenty to be frightened of," he said sternly, "when there's gossip on the tongue. Homes ruined, I've seen, and hearts broken."

  Miss Menzies was silent a moment. "I didn't grudge her the coat," she said at last. Mr. Pott snorted, and Miss Menzies went on. "In fact, I intend to make them some clothes myself. I thought I'd just leave the clothes about for them to find, so they'll never know where they came from..."

  "That's better," said Mr. Pott, scraping at a brick. There was a long pause—so strangely long that Mr. Pott became aware of it. Had he been a little too sharp, he wondered, and glanced sideways at Miss Menzies. With clasped knees, she sat smiling into space.

  "I love them, you see," she said softly.